(Jack and Casey Dinnigan encountered Wanda and Cosmo from Fairly Odd Parents on Norwegian Gem. )
Norwegian's New Youth Program
Scores Big with Family Cruisers
By Lizz Dinnigan
It’s only 8:30 a.m., and my pajama-clad sons – Jack, 8, and Casey, 5 – are in sensory overload.
Before them lies a feast of eye-popping culinary delights (shown at right*).
The feast includes pastel-tinged waffles, rainbow-flecked pancakes, mint-green and pale-pink frosted donuts, fruit skewers and multi-colored gelatin-cube parfaits.
Oh, and SpongeBob (shown at left*) just walked by and gave them high-fives.
It’s a childhood fantasy turned into reality, as our family sailed from New York to the Bahamas and Florida on Norwegian Gem earlier this summer.
Called “Pajama Jam,” this breakfast event is one of the many festive experiences offered through Norwegian Cruise Line's (www.ncl.com) partnership with Nickelodeon, which has been a huge lure for the under-12 set.
Pajama Jam was held in Spinnaker, a cabaret-style theater, and my boys were each given a souvenir cup filled with bubbles and a rubber bracelet.
We piled our plates at the buffet and sat down to watch the dance show featuring all of the Nick characters onboard.
Afterward, several stations were set up in the theater for photo opportunities with each of the characters. The family event costs $15 per person, but is definitely worth the fun.
A maximimum of 200 guests are permitted into each performance, so reservations are a must. While you can’t reserve space pre-cruise, you can book at the reception desk as soon as you board the ship.
Revamped Youth Program
The year-round Nickelodeon productions are part of Norwegian Cruise Line’s newly enhanced onboard youth program, intended to cater to its booming family market.
From our perspective, the cruise line thought of everything -- from kid spa treatments to a miniature seating area in the buffet to family circus workshops.
"The ship is very child friendly, and a lot of what we do here is mirrored across the fleet," says Michael “Machine” Stallwood, youth program manager.
So while my husband Joe, my two kids and I sailed on the Norwegian Gem from New York, the program is also offered on Norwegian Jewel, from New York, and Norwegian Epic, which sails year-round from Miami.
(Our family is shown in the photo at right, taken by a Norwegian Cruise Line photographer on our recent cruise.*)
When the Norwegian Breakaway debuts in April 2013, it will also have the program.
Eventually, all ships in Norwegian's fleet will have the new features. Check with your travel agent or the line about whether your ship has all these perks.
Formerly called Kid’s Crew, the newly named Splash Academy has redefined its age parameters, and the curriculum is now produced in conjunction with U.K.-based King’s Foundation, a developer of sports and activity programs.
While the ship and itinerary were fabulous, Nickelodeon really stole the spotlight for our two children.
(Aang from Avatar and other Nickelodeon characters perform onboard Norwegian Cruise Line.*)
On Feb. 19, the new Nickelodeon youth program features went live for guests on Norwegian Gem, according to Ben Rowan, show captain/co-manager of the Nickelodeon Onboard Program. “People will book because of Nickelodeon.”
The boutique stores sell Nickelodeon merchandise. And Rowan says it certainly changes the dynamic of a typical sailing by having a host of Nickelodeon characters onboard, including SpongeBob, Patrick and Sandy; Dora and Diego; Cosmo and Wanda from Fairly Odd Parents; and Aang from Avatar.
“But it’s not all-access,” he says, “because if the characters are around all the time, the kids get de-sensitized to it, and it becomes part of the background.” Rowan adds that it’s exciting to randomly run into Dora or Diego.
“If you go to Disney or anywhere with memorable characters, even as an adult you light up and return to that ‘I’m a child again’ feeling,” he says. “It’s one of the most priceless things to see on a ship. And Pajama Jam breakfasts allow us to connect with families on a more personal level.”
Almost half the passengers on our sailing were children 21 and under. “Our target age is 12 and under, which was about 470 passengers on this cruise. During Spring Break, we had 1,000 kids under 12. We get high children counts when Port Canaveral/Orlando is on the itinerary," Rowan said.
"Instead of Pajama Jam on the Jewel and Epic, they do ‘SlimeTime Live,’ an interactive family main-stage show involving challenges and massive slimings,” says Rowan.
Other character appearances include “Dora’s Dance Party,” (shown above*) featuring structured dances to favorite children’s songs; “Storytime with Dora,” involving a reading and audience participation; arts-and-crafts sessions; Sailaway Show on the pool deck and a welcome-aboard theater show.
As for character meet and greets, there were two for photo opportunities and two surprise pop-ins at Splash Academy.
“On Great Stirrup Cay, [Norwegian's private island in the Bahamas], we did three surprise Splash Mobs involving green slime,” says Rowan. “We set up shop on the beach, and roamed around with slime-shooting play guns."
He also says the counselors set up games, giving them the opportunity huddle a bunch of kids together and do a massive slime.
"There’s a surprise element; you will miss it if you’re not aware of it," he stressed. "We can’t possibly slime everyone.” I have to say, we did miss it, but our kids still had fun.
The other aspect of youth entertainment is the free Splash Academy, held in the Treetops facility.
It’s structured quite differently than any of the other cruise industry youth programs that my family has utilized in recent years, but in a good way.
The supervised program is split into age groups: 2 -5, 6-9, 10-12 and 13-17.
Daily hours of operation on our cruise were 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
On Norwegian Jewel, the facility’s main, rectangular room (a similar facility is shown above on Norwegian Gem*) measures 2,200 square feet.
It's empty, except for colorful floor mats, a jungle gym climbing contraption at the far end of the room, and four arts-and-crafts tables at the opposite end of the room. Kids can sit on cushioned window seats.
There’s another room, typically the main room for the 3-to-5 year-olds behind the jungle gym; it features a large TV and mats.
Due to space constraints, youth staff relocates the age group with the most participating kids to an alternate area of the ship to avoid overcrowding in Treetops.
Stallwood says it’s a freestyle drop-in program. Splash Academy does not necessarily adhere to a tentative activity roster, which is issued at the time of registration.
Instead, it's a more flexible, loosely set schedule with a lot of Freestyle Free Play, which allowed my boys separated by age into different groups – to play together.
Although my sons are three years apart, they are best friends. It’s difficult when they’re separated into different age groups on a cruise ship, but we did not have that issue on the Norwegian Gem.
“When we saw each other at Free Play, we ran over to each other and hugged,” Jack excitedly told me later that day. It's clear my kids loved to play together in the kids center.
“The big room is for kids 10-12 and 6-9; the 2-5s come in during Free Play times,” says Stallwood. “Our program depends on kid count. Whichever age group has a higher percentage of kids is the way we rotate the space available to us. We have to adapt and change the written program."
Counselors have access to meeting rooms, the sports court and theater. "We rotate the activities every 30 minutes" said Stallwood.
"But the open Free Play is structured,” says Stallwood. “It’s for the 2-5s, 6-9s and 10-12s. We set up three to four manned stations: the jungle gym, circus skills area on mats, and there is an arts-and-crafts station and a chill-out area.”
There are themes each day, including Commotion in the Ocean, Cowboys in Outer Space, Pirate Plunder and Circus at Sea.
Again, while activities listed in the guide are subject to change, here's an idea of what’s available by age group:
- 10 to 12: Kids may participate in the iCarly Experience, Survivor Night, Sports Court action, animal BINGO, mini-Olympics and parachute games.
- 6 to 9: These kids may experience whirlpool circle games, Red Light Green Light, build a giant rocket, Nickelodeon crafts, juice-making session and treasure hunt parade.
- 2 to 5: Younger kids enjoy story time, tag, organic art, sensory play, silly games and crazy songs, pirate relays and pajama party.
A phone is issued to parents of those 2 to 5 if the child is not potty trained.
The staff is not permitted to change diapers. The phone must be returned at the end of each session.
If the phone is lost, the charge is $270. These devices only work onboard the ship, not ashore.
Parent-child interaction outside of Treetops is highly encouraged through a series of group activities.
These include Charades, Pictionary, pool games, scavenger hunts and make-your-own pizza party.
Other options include cupcake decorating and Who’s the Boss, a game in which kids find out how well they know their parents and vice versa.
One kids' program highlight our kids absolutely loved?
As part of the revamped youth program, Norwegian hired a highly creative company, Hilario Productions, to create a new Cirque du Jour program of entertaining family circus workshops
Parents and kids try such circus skills as plate spinning, juggling with scarves and balls, devil sticks and Chinese yo-yos.
Our entire family shared a lot of laughs at these gatherings. (See some of the action above.*)
The children could practice with this equipment in Treetops as well.
It’s very original, and fun for all ages.
(Jack Dinnigan is shown "juggling scarves" during Cirque activity play.*)
Kid and Teen Sign Registration
To sign children ages 2 to 17 up for the children's and teen programs, parents must fill out a one-time registration form.
On the form, they give information about their child’s allergies and medical conditions.
Parents also must list the names of adults who are permitted to drop off and pick up the child. The authorized adult must present their ship key card to sign the child out or they will not be released.
When in the program only, each child wears a wristband (listing name, muster station and allergies) so youth staff can identify issues quickly.
(Sign in and activity forms are shown at right.*)
Children with special needs are welcome to attend the youth program.
Norwegian has two fee-based group babysitting services in Treetops for kids 2-12.
They're called Port Play Meal Times and Late-Night Fun Zone.
While play time during port days is free, parents pay for the supervised meal times; the supervised meal time fee is $6 per child hourly for each meal time.
The line defines those port day meal times as 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. (if the ship arrives at 7 a.m. or 8 a.m.), noon to 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. The supervised meal times service is not available on days at sea.
Late-Night Fun Zone fees are $6 per child and $4 per sibling. That service is available from 10:30 p.m.
There is no private baby sitting in guest cabins or suites.
Safety and Hygiene
On our cruise there were 16 youth staff members; 10 of those were on duty at any given time. There is no one-on-one care.
(Just outside the kids' facility is a wading pool used by toddlers.*)
"We accommodate whatever situation a kid is in,” says Stallwood. “This week we had five autistic children and one child with a pacemaker."
He adds: "...plus, every cruise we host a child from the Make a Wish Foundation, so we need to be aware of conditions.”
There’s a separate teen center with a private entrance called the Leopard Lounge (shown in the photo above*). It’s always manned by one teen counselor and one youth counselor.
“This sailing we had 377 teens under 18,” says Stallwood. “All teens need to be registered, but they can come and go as they please. As soon as we get a few, the rest start flooding in.”
Teen activities include bowling tournaments, rock climbing, karaoke night, gameshows, movie night, celebrity lookalike hunt, planking and owling, pizza party, dodgeball, dance parties and scavenger hunts.
The silver lounge is outfitted with a circular dance floor, cozy seating area jammed with leopard-print pillows, smoothie bar, juke box, air hockey and foosball tables, Wii and PS3 consoles, and nine TVs.
Note that there is a 1 a.m. curfew for kids 17 and under.
They must be out of public venues and in their cabin unless participating in a scheduled activity with a parent.
Infants and Toddlers
On the opposite end of the age spectrum are the infants and toddlers. There is a room adjacent to, but inaccessible from, Treetops, which is open all day and exclusively used for the Under 2 Zoo.
It’s the size of a Manhattan studio apartment and covered in mats. This series of parent-supervised programming includes nursery rhyme time, organic finger painting and parent-baby workouts. They are listed in the Freestyle Daily newsletter.
We were told that the only reason the door would be unlocked between the two facilities is if a child needs to use the bathroom or requires a diaper change.
An infant pool with an elephant slide is available within a glass-enclosed area just outside the Under 2 Zoo room.
Pool Deck Fun
Clearly the most popular spot on the Norwegian Gem for kids outside of Treetops is the pool deck (shown in the photo above*). At times, it was quite congested.
Two swimming pools await -- one for families (as shown in the photo at right*) and one for adults only.
The family pool tends to be very busy, the adult one not so much so.
They are separated by a carnival-style gazebo, which is used as a bandstand, and the focal point for outdoor dance parties and games.
The entire pool area is bordered by two-story-high palm tree lights, which look so pretty at twilight.
The family pool is surrounded by a three-inch-deep spillover wading area.
Adjacent is a tall, yellow, corkscrew waterslide (a portion of which is shown at left*).
My kids played on it more than in the pool. The slide is manned, and kids must be 6 years old to ride.
The adult pool had a waterfall and spillover area.
As with other cruise ships, lounge chairs were already being “reserved” by other guests, well before 8 a.m. So go early if you wish to secure several together.
While we weren't able to do that, it didn’t really matter as we were either in the pool, on the slide (shown in the photo at right*) or in the hot tubs anyway.
We simply borrowed a chair from the outdoor dining area.
Still, I was very pleased to learn that Norwegian is trialing a program on Norwegian Star that prevents guests from reserving chairs all day, and in many cases, not using those chairs for hours at a time.
If the Norwegian program is a success, guests will no longer be able to do that. That will help assure that guests who are actually using the pool facilities get a lounger.
One special feature our family loved was the intermittent cool mist sprayed along the perimeter of the pool area for those in lounge chairs. It reminded me of produce getting spritzed in the supermarket.
So what else can guests do onboard? Unique in the industry are Norwegian's onboard bowling alleys (shown in the photo above*).
Norwegian Gem has a pair of two-lane bowling alleys. Bowling costs $5 per person, per game, including rental shoes.
The alleys are nestled within the velvety plush, very elaborately decorated and dimly lit Bliss Lounge.
Bliss reminds me of a 1940s bordello, with secret nooks hidden behind beaded curtains and velvet canopied couches. It's all in good fun and our kids enjoyed visiting during the daytime when we headed to the bowling alley.
There’s a rock climbing wall opposite the Sports Court. (See the photo at right*)
Kids must be 6 years old to climb the rock wall.
Other activity options for families onboard include three poolside ping-pong tables, giant chess and checker boards, shuffleboard, two golf driving ranges, movies shown in the Atrium and a jogging track.
In addition, families can head to a small video arcade, play board games in the card room, look at children’s books in the library.
The Spinnaker Lounge is the place for darts, a pool table and funky velvet furniture.
In addition, one evening, there was an interactive family-friendly “Who’s Line Is It Anyway”-style performance by the Second City comedy troupe in the Spinnaker Lounge.
Our entire family attended and enjoyed several Stardust Theater main-stage shows.
(In the photo at left, you'll see our kids posing in the theater's upper deck.*)
In the spa, Norwegian had select spa specials for teens and kids.
For $39 for girls under 11, the “Kids Spa Ice Cream Party" features a foot fizz spa, sherbet exfoliation, mini pedicure, polish on fingers and foot massage.
In addition, girls who buy the party package receive a yummy bowl of ice cream to eat while enjoying the spa pampering.
Is it weird that my boys replied “hanging out in the cabin” when we asked what was their favorite part of the cruise?
Jack and Casey loved the in-room programming's dedicated Nickelodeon channel. They were perfectly content to curl up on the bed and watch episodes of Victorious and iCarly, their favorite shows at home.
They both said they felt cozy and safe in the cabin, and they enjoyed watching the sunset from our balcony.
Our balcony stateroom, 9602, was a bit more compact than other balcony cabins we've had on other cruises, but it was very comfortable and furnished with everything we could possibly need.
The port-side, Category BA mid-ship balcony cabin accommodates up to four.
It was at the perfect location for our family -- quite near the elevator bank that conveniently led directly to Treetops, the buffet, pool deck and Magenta dining room.
Next to the queen bed was a small, pull-out sofa. Casey slept there. He often rolls off his bed at home and I didn’t want a sleeping child falling on my head at 3 a.m.
So he stayed on ground level. In turn, Jack took the upper berth, which pulled down from the ceiling directly above the sofa.
It had a detachable ladder and created a bunk bed effect when the couch was made up into the pull-out bed below.
Just be advised that once the upper berth is pulled down and the sofa pulled out (as shown in the photo above*), it's not easy to access the balcony.
Our stateroom amenities included two outlets, coffeemaker, safe, TV, hairdryer, built-in containers with shampoo and body gel, a full-length mirror, reading lamps, mini-refrigerator and ample storage space and shelves.
A big hit with my kids was the three-compartment bathroom, consisting of a shower stall, sink area and toilet. The sections were separated by sliding-glass privacy screens.
What’s for Dinner?
More than a decade ago, Norwegian creatied Freestyle Cruising and the related concept of Freestyle Dining. Both ushered in a new era of flexibility, reflecting a changing world of customer desires.
Many consumers, and particularly younger travelers, don't want structure or formality onboard cruise ships.
They don't want to be told when to eat and with whom to eat.
(Jack Dinnigan, at left, loved visiting the the dessert buffet onboard Norwegian Gem.*)
Norwegian's Freestyle product appeals to that crowd -- people who like to do what they want, when they want.
Freestyle dining means no fixed dining times, pre-assigned seating or formal nights. Each ship has a number of varied dining venues.
You just have to know how to work the reservations, and how to check for availability, as well as to understand that during the most popular dining times, you may be given a buzzer to call you back when space opens up.
The maitre d' at each restaurant will also happily make a reservation at another, if the restaurant you show up at has no availability.
We had 11 tempting restaurants to choose from on Norwegian Gem.
The no-charge options include the Magenta and Grand Pacific main dining rooms, indoor/outdoor Garden Café buffet and outdoor grill with giant charcoal drums, and a 24-hour, fast-food Blue Lagoon.
A highly popular spot on the pool deck was a huge outdoor grill for preparing paella (as shown in the photo at left.*)
Not surprisingly, for my kids, the buffet was the highlight.
They loved roaming around with their plates, and usually screeched to a halt at the unlimited pizza and made-to-order pasta stations, as well as the ice cream stand.
Norwegian also nicely provides an adorable pint-sized dining area for children within the buffet restaurant. (It's shown in the photo above.*)
The other Freestyle Dining venues carried a per-person cover charge. Choices included Teppanyaki ($25); Cagney's Steakhouse ($25); Sushi Bar (a la carte pricing); Moderno Churrascaria, a Brazilian barbecue ($20); French-style Le Bistro ($20); La Cucina, an Italian kitchen ($10); and the Orchid Garden Asian restaurant ($15).
Make a reservation online in advance for your top choices, or at the very least, immediately upon boarding. The Teppanyaki (a Japanese hibachi dining venue that's shown in the photo above*) was booked solid every night
Also highly popular with guests on our cruise was the Italian kitchen. To see what restaurants have availability if you suddenly get the hunger pangs and want to eat "now," check the electronic video monitors throughout the ship.
The monitors (one is shown at left*) give a sense of whether the restaurant is booked and when a better time might be.
Green means open with good space. Yellow is for restaurants filling up fast.
Red means the restaurant is fully booked.
One bonus is that if parents choose to dine in select specialty restaurants, they only pay for themselves. That's because kids 4-12 may eat at no charge off the dining room children’s menu.
The children’s menu features a choice of juice, hamburger or cheeseburger with fries, hot dog with fries, chicken noodle soup, mac-n-cheese, chicken tenders, PB&J, cheese or pepperoni personal pizza.
For dessert, kids choose cookies, brownies, colorful gelatin cubes or ice cream.
Twice we dined at Moderno Churrascuria, the outstanding Brazilian barbecue where skewers of roasted meats are carved tableside.
(As shown in the photo at left, the Dinnigans enjoy carved steak and other grilled meat at Moderno.*)
Moderno also had an extensive salad bar with imported Italian cheeses, cured meats, olives, ceviche and grilled vegetables.
The cuisine here was beyond delicious. And even though our kids ate off the children’s menu, they begged to go back to Moderno to watch the “serving show.”
In addition, there is a limited 24-hour room service menu. It's complimentary, except between midnight and 5 a.m., when a $5 service charge applies.
Also, there is a $5 charge for pizza delivery but you get a fresh-to-order pie and they'll deliver it anywhere on the ship (except perhaps in shows or other programs where it would interrupt the flow).
Is Norwegian for you?
If you have children and are traveling on Norwegian Gem, Norwegian Jewel or Norwegian Epic, or other Norwegian Wednesday, August 15, 2012ships (as the new kids' program services are added), the answer, based on our first-hand perspective, is "absolutely."
Our cruise experience proves Norwegian really knows how to appeal to the younger set.
My kids had a terrific time onboard and loved seeing their favorite TV characters. The exclusive Nickelodeon partnership and parent-child activities alone are huge selling points for families.
For more information, talk to your travel agent or visit www.ncl.com.